The Last Temptation of Craig Watkins
The only black district attorney in Texas has won fame for breaking barriers and freeing innocent men. But can he overcome his enemies—and his own thin skin?
In Craig Watkins’ office high atop the Frank Crowley Courts Building, there is a small table nestled against the front of his desk, flanked on either side by a black leather chair. On the table there are three books: A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner’s Will Smith-approved memoir of his journey from homelessness to Wall Street; and Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Guide to Ethics and Civil Liability (second edition). Atop the books sits a short stack of recent issues of Jet magazine.
Nothing would seem to sum up the last two years of Watkins’ life so neatly as that little table. A district attorney (Doing Justice) who, though he has faced long odds and is often underestimated (The Pursuit of Happyness), strives for a significant change in The Way Things Are Done (A Call to Conscience). Oh, and he’s black (Jet). But it’s not that simple.
Watkins, 41, is full of contradictions. He has the resolve to take on decades of history, the legacy of one of the most well-known DAs in America (Henry Wade), and an entire criminal justice system. But he’s also so sensitive that he can’t help but recall slights suffered on the campaign trail more than two years ago, the kind of rearview-mirror business that shouldn’t bother a man bent on progress. He’s helplessly showy at times and can be immodest. He is, after all, the first black DA in Texas history. Yet his biggest fear is being trapped by his own celebrity, tripping over his own press clippings and highlight reels. With DNA testing, Dallas County has freed more wrongly convicted men than anywhere else in the country, and last year 60 Minutes gave Watkins much of the credit.
In short, he is just a man. A man with a powerful position and, on the right day, history at his back—but still a man, with flaws and foibles like all the rest. He’s a work in progress. He’s still figuring it all out. In just six months, the time it took to report this story, I saw the evolution of Craig Watkins.
Watkins is a big guy, 6-foot-5 and broad, and he carries himself so that not an inch or pound is unaccounted for. When he enters his office and deposits himself into one of those leather chairs next to the table, he sinks into his seat like a bored king, weighing his chin in one giant paw, his legs jutting out like flying buttresses. While we’re here: his skin isn’t caramel-colored. It’s black. The color of coffee with no cream. Even today, that color puts some people on edge, scares them just a little bit.
It’s May 21, 2008. It’s been 506 days since Watkins took office. The narrative that took shape when he ran for district attorney in 2002 (against Bill Hill), and again in 2006, has been added onto substantially, of course, in the intervening years, given all that has happened since. But the core of it—the origin story, if you will—remains unchanged. It says that Watkins was a political neophyte who came out of nowhere, riding the tide of a motivated Democratic base. He did not win so much as the Republicans were defeated. It could have been anyone. Watkins was a cipher, a warm body, a name on the ballot at the right place and time.
Part of this is true. The Democratic base was motivated in 2006. But though Watkins was unknown north of I-30, he was no stranger to politics or local government. His uncle Ted Watkins, who passed away in November, was a four-term president of the Dallas chapter of the NAACP. His aunt Deborah Watkins is the city secretary. His cousin Kurt Watkins is the head of the communications committee for the Dallas County Young Democrats.
“I think the southern sector always knew him,” Kurt says. “Black Dallas knew who Craig Watkins was 10 years ago. In South Dallas, the Watkins name is a big deal.”
When he won the job of Dallas County district attorney, Watkins became the first black man to hold that position in this or any other county in Texas. At the time, he knew he was breaking new ground at home, but he didn’t find out that distinction applied statewide until the day he was sworn in, when state Sen. Royce West mentioned the fact in a speech after the ceremony. Watkins knew he was making history; he just didn’t know how much.
“I didn’t even think about it from that standpoint,” he says. “So that really gave me an idea of what all this meant. I had a responsibility—not just for Dallas, but for the state—to address some of the ills of our criminal justice system. Just to make it better.”
And so the man who campaigned on a platform of reform has slowly come to realize that one of the things in the district attorney’s office that needs to change is—him.
“If you look at Martin Luther King, when he gave that speech in Alabama during the bus boycott, when he was first put on the national scene to head the civil rights movement, you look at him as a person, and you read his writings and speeches, and you see he evolved into the position,” he says. His heavily lidded eyes flicker toward the table and A Call to Conscience. “I don’t think he knew what he was getting into. I don’t think Barack Obama knew what he was getting into. Hell, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I think at some point you evolve into it and you realize that this is a lot larger than you personally.”
He’s still clearly in the early stages of that evolutionary process. When he speaks—which he does in a surprisingly high voice that’s lightly coated in black vernacular; he always says “querstion” instead of “question,” and sometimes opts for “axe” instead of “ask”—it’s apparent that Watkins is still taking things very personally. He can’t let things go. Though some would attribute his status as one of the most prominent district attorneys in the country to a series of star-making profiles (in the New York Times and Texas Monthly and, most notably, the 60 Minutes segment devoted to him on May 4) that appeared in the wake of the unprecedented number of DNA exonerations emerging from Dallas County, Watkins isn’t as cozy with the fourth estate as that publicity would suggest, especially locally. In March, a series of stories ran in the Dallas Morning News about his alleged improper use of a county car, which followed close on the heels of the collective smirk that greeted his theatrical unveiling of newly discovered documents related to the JFK assassination (the documents turned out to be nothing more than a curiosity). But what sticks in his mind is what happened before he was elected.
“I think they have to make up for all the things they did to me when I was running,” he says. He was embarrassed to walk through the halls of his sons’ school, he says, worried that the other parents and teachers had read the stories that, he says, portrayed him as a criminal and incompetent. Every bit of negative press since then has picked at that scab, never letting it fully heal. His sensitivity used to be even more acute. At least he has stopped commenting on every blog post tagged “Craig Watkins.” “At this point, I’ve realized that I can’t sit around and respond to all the things they write about me,” he says. “That’s part of the evolution.”
But he can’t help himself. He would rather be talking about his work with the Innocence Project of Texas and his new conviction integrity unit and the men who were wrongly imprisoned that he helped free. But Watkins’ conversational GPS is broken. No matter what destination he chooses, his aggravation keeps him circling back to those old Morning News stories.
“I come into office under this big microscope, which I understand,” he says. “But all these other folks that had been in this position, you never challenged them. As a result of that, we’ve got all these exonerations. Had the fake drug scandal. Had a DA [Bill Hill] give $1 million away of money that I should be using for the benefit of the citizens of Dallas County. That was never questioned. Giving $400,000 to a special prosecutor on the fake drug scandal, in December, right after I was elected, two years after the fact. And then he’s over there partners with them.” True enough, Bill Hill works with former special prosecutor Dan Hagood at his criminal defense firm, Fitzpatrick Hagood Smith & Uhl. So does Toby Shook, the prosecutor Watkins beat out for the DA job. “No one asks any questions about that. But you’re gonna question me, ask if I’m doing something wrong, say that I’m morally challenged? That’s what upsets me about politics.”
Watkins should be talking about the new approach to criminal justice that he is trying to usher in, not just in Dallas, but across the state and the country, the programs meant to be smart on crime rather than tough. But, again, he can’t help himself. Now he’s moving on to County Commissioner Ken Mayfield. Almost every problem Watkins has faced since his election, publicly and privately, has somehow involved Mayfield. (When asked about Watkins, Mayfield says he has a problem with the DA “because of a lack of competence and a lack of ethics.”)
“I’m a human being,” Watkins says. “I get upset. I’m like, I’m gonna shoot back one day. You keep shooting at me, I’m gonna shoot back. And it’s gonna be a headshot. My thing is, am I gonna limit myself to playing politics, or am I gonna continue to do what’s in the best interests of the citizens that I represent? So I struggle with that because I’m a human being and I’m like, I’m tired of this. This is a government job. You know, I had a lucrative law firm. I gave it up to do this because I wanted to do something good. I’m thinking, ‘To hell with this.’ And, ‘Hell, I can fight you and really get you. The little things you’re throwing at me are bullshit. But I can really get you.’ And so am I gonna stoop to that level, or am I gonna stay aboveboard and do what’s necessary to make all this right? I struggle with that on a daily basis.”
Over the next several months, I will watch that struggle play out time and again, and I—and Watkins—will eventually learn the answer to that question. Today, though, one year and five months into his administration, that seems like a long way off.
It’s June 17, and Watkins, I’m sure, has called to say he will no longer cooperate with this story.
A week ago, I was scheduled to visit him at his home in DeSoto. Watkins doesn’t have many interests beyond his job and his family—wife Tanya; sons Chad, 10, and Cale, 6; and daughter Taryn, 2. He’s a fan of smooth jazz. He listens to an online feed of the Oasis out of Houston. The only movies he ever sees are whatever the boys want to watch (“Most of it is, you know, silly stuff,” he says). Weekends, he usually has speaking engagements at rotary clubs and bar associations around the county. When he has a rare moment of free time, he might fly down to Galveston (“the cheap little trip I go on”), but mostly he stays at the three-story house with towering white columns his years in private practice paid for, located in the middle of an enclave of black power. (Former NFL star Tim Brown, as well as John King, founder of one of the largest black-owned advertising firms in the nation, are among his neighbors, and Royce West owns property in the area.)
“I sit outside, watch basketball games, smoke some cigars, and barbecue,” Watkins says. “That’s the kind of stuff I do. Sit home and watch my kids run around.”
Catching Watkins off the clock meant a trip to DeSoto. But his public information officer, Jamille Bradfield, called the day before and canceled the visit to Watkins’ home without much explanation.
It was not surprising. A few weeks ago, Fox 4 reporter Paul Adrian broke a story about the DA office’s Christmas party in 2007, which featured door prizes like round-trip tickets for two on American Airlines and spots in a luxury suite at a Dallas Cowboys game. Using commentary from various watchdog groups, Adrian’s piece accused Watkins and his office of trading favors and “selling access.” It raised some legitimate questions, but the only answer Watkins was allowed in his own words was this: “Questions that have been raised about potential violations of any kind are groundless. It is unfortunate, that of all the real news being generated out of the DA’s office … that the media would waste time reporting on our office’s holiday event that occurred five and a half months ago.” They were ill-considered words, showing Watkins’ defensiveness. But they were cherry-picked from a three-page written response. Watkins felt burned.
That’s what he’s saying now on the phone. It feels like a courtesy call, a way to let me down gently. He explains that Adrian’s report has made him reconsider his thoughts on dealing with the media, that he’s been “wounded by the press,” and maybe the problem is that he’s been too open with reporters, too willing to talk. So I’m stunned when he wraps up the conversation by inviting me to meet him at The Bridge at Fair Park. It’s an adult daycare center that his parents, Richard and Paula, opened a year ago. They pick up the elderly and disabled from around the neighborhood, keep them occupied and fed, and take them back home.
An hour later, I arrive at a stucco building with a fenced-in courtyard off MLK Boulevard. In front sits a blue Scion with a magnetic sign on the door promoting T-Shirts Etcetera, the t-shirt manufacturing shop that shares space with The Bridge. The car and the business belong to Watkins’ younger brother Greg. Next door is Fidelity National Title, the company his wife runs out of the building that used to house his law firm and still contains what he calls his “campaign headquarters,” a closet-sized space so overcrowded it’s a parody of a headquarters. Chad and Cale come here after school. If Watkins isn’t at home or his office, he’s probably on this corner of MLK.
(Less than a month from now, both buildings will be involved in another Paul Adrian investigative report, this one contending that Watkins was continuing the private practice of law, a no-no for prosecutors. The basis for this, in large part, was the amount of time Watkins spends here. “But if he’s not involved [in closings], why is the district attorney spending so much time at the title business?” Adrian asked. “Fox 4 monitored the company for the past few weeks and saw him there numerous times, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for hours, and a couple of times for most of the day.” This is why some people hate the media.)
Inside The Bridge, the power has been off for almost an hour, thanks to a storm that blew in this morning, but the business at hand continues. Paula, pretty and stylish even in plastic-wrap gloves, is readying lunch for her charges—lasagna, green beans, and a peach for dessert. Richard, an older version of his eldest son, with the same stature and hooded eyes, moves from room to room, making sure everyone is doing okay in the dark. The blackout has chased Greg from his office, so he has moved a pair of laptops to a table near the open door. The bulk of The Bridge consists of one large open space, with round tables for cards and dominos, a number of worn easy chairs, and a TV. It’s like the common room at a college dorm. This is where Watkins held a viewing party for his 60 Minutes episode.
After a few minutes, the rain stops and the power returns. Richard raises his arms and plays preacher: “Let there be light!” Playing along with the movie script, Watkins walks in with his wife and Bradfield.
“Where all the old folks at?” he asks, laughing.
“There’s one,” Tanya says, pointing at her father-in-law, laughing, too.
After a round of hugs, Watkins grabs a plate of lasagna from his mom and sits down, draping a leg over his chair. Why does Watkins spend so much time here? The past 45 seconds are a pretty good clue.
This is what Watkins wants me to see—not as a hedge because he knows Adrian (or someone else) will eventually try to use this place against him, but because this corner of MLK says more about him than a trip down to his house in DeSoto ever would. As much as any place, this is his home. This is his family. This is where he’s from, where he built his career as a lawyer. And what happened last weekend has given him renewed faith in himself and in what he’s been doing since his office moved to the Frank Crowley Building.
Last weekend, Watkins was in Washington, D.C., as a guest of the American Constitution Society at its national convention. It couldn’t have come at a better time. There he was surrounded by like-minded people, peers who had come of age as lawyers at the same time. More important, he was introduced to the next generation of prosecutors and defense attorneys, law students who were in awe of him and what he’s trying to accomplish. Watkins was taken aback by his reception. He says he had no idea people knew who he was, no understanding of just how far the message he was broadcasting out of Dallas County had spread.
“If you go to places outside of Dallas County, outside of Texas, what we’re doing is revolutionizing the criminal justice system,” he says. “I went there and saw there’s a bigger picture. It’s a lot bigger than me and what I’m dealing with here. It gave me the confidence back to keep going forward and not be afraid of the ugly side of this, because it’s going to happen and I don’t have any control over it. All I can do is just be honest, keep doing my deal, and hopefully we can get responsible people in positions like yours that will report the truth.”
“I come into office under this big microscope, which I understand,” he says. “But all these other folks that had been in this position, you never challenged them.”
It’s time to get outside of Dallas County, to see how The Craig Watkins Show travels. It’s time to go to Houston.
It’s June 20, and the occasion is a campaign fundraiser for C.O. “Brad” Bradford, the former Houston police chief who is attempting to become Texas’ second black district attorney. You’d be forgiven if you took in the scene and decided everyone was here for Watkins instead of Bradford. You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Most of the people are here because of Watkins, even Bradford. “Craig is just about the only one interested in conviction integrity,” he says, breaking away from the elevator speech about his candidacy he gave me as soon as I shook his hand.
For one thing, the location for tonight’s cocktail party—a well-appointed townhouse on a quiet, leafy street—belongs to Dwight Battle. He’s one of Watkins’ closest friends, and has been since he and his family moved from New York to just down the street from Watkins in fifth grade, near the corner of Caracas Drive and Meadow Valley Lane in the Red Bird area of Dallas. They stayed together from Adele Turner Elementary all the way through college at Prairie View A&M University, where they both pledged Kappa Alpha Psi. Back then, Watkins was known as the Gentle Giant.
“He wasn’t one of those individuals that talked a lot or was overly animated,” Battle says. “But he was definitely viewed as a leader, and when he spoke, people listened and took action based on a lot of what he recommended. Everyone in most situations viewed him as a leader and the go-to guy.”
The guest list is studded with other Kappas who were on the same line as Watkins and Battle, old buddies like Reuel Williams and Michael R. Williams. That was a special year, they all say; they are a fraternity within a fraternity. Of the 28 who pledged together, 21 still regularly keep in touch and get together when they can.
Partygoers trickle in, winding their way up the curving staircase into Battle’s living room, which looks like an African art gallery—on every wall, in every corner, there are paintings, drawings, wood sculpture. Tanya Watkins wants me to look at something else: “We stole that color for our house,” she says, pointing not to the art but the walls behind it. They’re in the middle of remodeling their home. Tanya is a Prairie View A&M alum as well. “We were at Prairie View at the same time, but I like to say I’m a lot younger,” she says, laughing. They met at an alumni picnic. She graduated in 1993; he walked three years earlier. She’s from Seattle but has family here, which is how she ended up in Prairie View, which is how she ended up here, the politician’s wife.
Watkins and the other Kappas huddle in the kitchen, letting the party start without them. They speak in shorthand: a name and a “remember the time when” is enough to prompt body-wrenching, eye-welling, counter-slapping laughter. Watkins doesn’t have to be Craig Watkins here. Not in the kitchen.
That time comes soon enough. First up, there is a conference with Bradford’s team as they look ahead to the future.
“Get someone who’s not a part of that office,” he says. “I had to go get someone out of my jurisdiction.” That would be Terri Moore. She ran for DA in Tarrant County and worked at the U.S. Attorney’s Office before coming on board Watkins’ staff as his first assistant. Watkins mentions another black district attorney in California, Kamala D. Harris of San Francisco. He spent a week in her office after being elected. “That gave me really good ideas in what to do in Dallas.” He offers the same courtesy to Bradford—should he win. Turning to his own administration, Watkins tells Bradford’s people it is “gonna take two more years,” that they’re “resistant to change.” He does not say these things angrily.
Battle pulls Watkins aside. He’s going to do a short speech at around 7:20. Until then, it’s time to turn on the charm. “Gonna shake some hands and kiss some babies,” Watkins says. “Got any babies in here?”
There are no babies here. But there are plenty of other full-grown people who want his attention. They want a word, a handshake, a moment. Watkins works the living room, scored to a soundtrack of soft piano versions of Aaron Copland, Vanessa Williams, and Bette Midler songs, asking questions, remembering names. What Watkins said about the American Constitution Society convention appears true, at least here. People outside Dallas County do see what’s going on there as a revolution. Of course, this is a fundraiser hosted by a longtime friend for a Democratic challenger who shares many of Watkins’ ideals, and it’s populated by a crowd that is the Cosby Show ideal: professional, attractive, educated, socially conscious, and black. That said, it is worth noting how Watkins handles the praise, deflecting attention from himself to his office, never pulling the pin on all those old grenades he used to throw at his predecessors. It’s the kind of audience that would indulge a bit of self-aggrandizement, that would easily help bear the burden of any chip on his shoulder. Tonight it just doesn’t happen.
He checks in on Tanya, holding court on a corner of the L-shaped sectional. She’s cut out for this—outgoing, confident, independent. She doesn’t need him worrying over her, so he takes a moment for himself before his speech. He slowly paces in a corner of the room, nursing a glass of water. After a few minutes, his path brings him to me. He starts talking about Battle, telling me about their first meeting (“I had to beat him up to show him who ran the block,” he says) and his friend’s route from Red Bird to Prairie View to Wharton Business School to life as a retired investment banker.
He puts his arm around my shoulders, and waves the other one around the room. “Who would have thought?” he says, smiling, taking it all in. “This little kid from New York.” Had he not added the last sentence, he might as well have been talking about himself.
It’s time to talk. After a few jokes at his host’s expense, he goes into a version of the speech he has delivered across the county since his election. He doesn’t use notes and appears completely at ease. “I’m not only concerned with putting people in prison,” he says. “I’m concerned with people being safe.” It’s a wide-ranging speech that touches on everything from education to drugs to the economy. If there is a central theme, it’s that everyone here is just as responsible for justice as he is, or Bradford might be.
“I always like to use O.J. Simpson as an example,” he says. “A lot of folks who look like us like to say he was innocent.” He pauses. “But let’s be honest—he was guilty.” It gets a huge laugh. After it dies down, Watkins turns serious. “Why was he found not guilty? Because the jury was made up of people who look like us. I don’t want an O.J. in Dallas County.”
He speaks for a few minutes more, periodically eliciting murmured mmm-hmms from around the room.
“I need C.O. Bradford because I’m standing by myself,” he concludes. “And it’s lonely. I need someone to help bring justice to Texas.”
Unfortunately, it won’t be Bradford. In November, he’ll be narrowly defeated by a Republican former felony court judge, Pat Lykos. Watkins is still the only black district attorney in Texas.
It’s September 4. We’re back in Watkins’ office. We’re talking about the Memo Agreement plan, a diversion program for first-time offenders that’s similar to the county’s drug court, which favors rehab over jail. Begun in June 2007, the program allows for the dismissal of certain misdemeanors if the perpetrator does 24 to 30 hours of community service, takes a few classes, pays court costs, and keeps his nose clean for 60 days.
“If you convict them of that crime, you may very well be affecting their ability to get a job—a good job—for the rest of their life,” Terri Moore, Watkins’ first assistant, told me a couple of months ago. “Right? In which case, have you really done anything for your community or have you just helped somebody to stay down? If you’re 18, or if you’re 25, for that matter, and you shoplifted, I know if I’m an employer and I see that you have a record for theft, I’m not going to hire you.”
This is one of the under-publicized good ideas Watkins brought to bear on the DA’s office, not as headline-worthy as the exonerations or double-blind lineups, maybe, but still a solid building block of a reconstructed system. He should enjoy discussing the topic, the interview equivalent of a fastball down the middle of the plate. Only he can’t see the pitch. Again, he can’t help himself.
He mentions that “a certain individual on the commissioners court” (he eventually names Ken Mayfield) tried to torpedo the program, inviting in a municipal court judge and a police officer to talk about all the dismissed cases. Watkins countered by pulling the numbers and explaining the Memo Agreement. “They went home with their tail between their legs,” he says. “They pretty much went out the door saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
Watkins has come to terms with the media, for the most part. He is coming to terms with the history of the DA’s office and the legacy of Henry Wade. He focuses on the future now rather than the past. But he has yet to come to terms with those who seek to knock him off stride in the name of politics. He has too much at stake.
Behind his desk, on a wall in the corner, there hangs a charcoal drawing depicting Watkins being sworn in as DA by retired judge L.A. Bedford, a legendary black attorney who led legal fights to desegregate Dallas schools. Bedford is a “first,” too—the first black judge in the city. The connection between the two runs even deeper: both went to Prairie View A&M, and Bedford was a deacon at the church Watkins grew up in. The drawing depicts a moment that is even more important than it appears. It is perhaps the key to all of this, the reason why he has the tendency, at times, to react poorly to people like Mayfield.
“I was looking at him when he was swearing me in, and he was trembling and he was almost teary-eyed,” Watkins says. “I was like, why is he so emotional for me? And then I realized: all the struggles that he had been through were really for me to have this opportunity. He said at the end of his little thing, ‘You’re the first. Let’s make sure that you’re not the last.’ I really didn’t understand at the time what he was talking about, but I understand it now. Any little thing you do will jeopardize someone else that may be different—a woman, Hispanic, whatever—to be put in this position. Whatever you do, if you make the smallest mistake, it will shine a disparaging light on everybody else that comes.”
You can hear it in his voice. Watkins physically feels that responsibility, senses the weight of it. The pressure he feels—not just as a district attorney, or even as the county and state’s first black district attorney—comes from knowing that everything he does will echo for years, affecting the lives of people who might not have even been born yet. When you’re in that position, carrying that burden, every pebble in the road has the potential to trip you up.
He is getting better at dealing with the scrutiny. He talks to Royce West. He talks to County Commissioner John Wiley Price. Their advice always comes too late, he jokes, but those post-mortem sessions have helped speed up his learning process, his evolution.
“You have to understand it’s not just about coming to work every day and doing your job,” he says. “That’s probably 10 percent of it.”
It’s November 4, and Craig Watkins is onstage in the middle of the Bishop Arts District, celebrating the victory of Barack Obama with just about every Democratic elected official in the county. It brings to mind something he said about Obama months ago in his office, just after the Texas primary.
“When I first met him, when I first saw all this, when he first started running, I’m thinking to myself, Obama is a United States senator,” he said. “He’s been there two years. He has a book out. Is this an opportunity for him to sell a whole bunch of books, to lay a stake on his claim to be a United States senator from Illinois for whenever he wants to quit [the race]? But I didn’t see that he may be our president. I just thought it was calculated on his part to put himself in a position where he wouldn’t have any serious challengers for his position in the future.”
Watkins’ detractors—some of these people are attorneys within his own office, folks still loyal to the man Watkins defeated, Toby Shook—say much the same thing about him. They claim that he lucked into a high-profile issue, the exonerations, and now he is using it for his own political gain. That he is not serious about being the district attorney. That he is not campaigning for justice but for another office. Off the record, they say he spends more time out politicking than inside the DA’s office working. On the record, people like Shook say that he is a good headline with no story.
“My frustration is, the majority of those exonerations were done under Bill Hill, and the first few that he did were already being worked on by Bill Hill,” Shook says. “The way that’s been played—it’s not only Craig’s fault. I think the media has jumped on that. But I think he’s obviously, being a politician, he’s gained from that. He plays that up.”
Shook, of course, expected to be sitting where Watkins is and says he’s “not sure” whether he’ll run against Watkins next year. But he worked at the DA’s office too long not to retain a handle on the situation inside Frank Crowley.
“The way it’s played up, I think it really hurt the morale of his office, and the prosecutors there,” he says. He points out that most of the exoneration cases came from the 1970s and ’80s. “Because it’s been played up almost to the extent of, ‘All these [prosecutors] are bad actors.’ They weren’t even born, or they were 5 years old when those cases were going on.”
Shook won’t say much more. “I’ve got to be kind of careful here, because practicing criminal law—he’s kind of sensitive to criticism.”
Watkins’ evolution has affected the way he interacts with his own staff. When he took office, there were people who still had portraits of Henry Wade hanging in their offices. Watkins was an outsider, someone who had just defeated a man they had worked with for years, someone they liked and supported. “At that point,” he says, “you have to look at it from the standpoint of: I can go in there and try to make these people like me. But is that a good use of my time?”
Instead of trying to make friends with the attorneys working for him, he has tried to win their respect. And he has gotten it, he says, because now they see. They see the change in the jury pools, now filled with people that trust and believe in the system. They see that the conviction integrity unit hasn’t put their jobs in danger; it’s made their jobs easier. Conviction rates have actually gotten higher. He points to the day at the courthouse when James Woodard was exonerated after spending 27 years in jail.
In a court across the hall, one of Watkins’ prosecutors was picking a jury panel. The prospective jurors were outside when Woodard walked out of his hearing and into a jubilant crowd. There was a commotion in the hall.
“After the exoneration, everybody comes up, raises Woodard’s hands, praises everybody: ‘We just freed an innocent man,’ ” Watkins says. “This prosecutor across the hall is thinking, ‘God, maybe I need to get rid of this jury panel because they may be swayed by what they just saw. It would be hard for me to convince this jury to convict this guilty person.’ That’s what he’s thinking, but he went through with it. He said the jury took five minutes to come back with a conviction. It’s because credibility has been restored. People are starting to see it. They’re starting to get it.”
It’s November 6. Watkins is onstage again, this time in a small auditorium on the third floor of SMU’s Dallas Hall. He is on a panel to discuss writer Michael Hall’s story “The Exonerated,” as part of the university-sponsored Texas Monthly Live series. Next to him on the dais are Hall; The Innocence Project of Texas’ Michelle Moore; James Waller, one of the 19 wrongly convicted men set free in Dallas County since 2001; and Rick Halperin and Tony Pederson from SMU. Behind them, projected on a giant screen, is a group photo of most of the men who have been released from Texas prisons thanks to DNA evidence.
Watkins could use this as a victory lap; it’s partially what it is intended to be. Instead, he uses it as a reminder, to the audience and to himself, not to get too caught up in the headlines, in the successes so far. DNA tests can fix past mistakes, but they can’t prevent ones in the future. He points out that most of the DNA results come back positive. He talks about the downside of exonerations: you find the guy who actually did it, you can prove it, and there is nothing that can be done because of statutes of limitations. And you come face-to-face with the reality that the person who wasn’t arrested in the first place went on to commit more crimes.
Most notably, he takes a more measured tone when referring to previous administrations. He’s no longer the guy who came on the scene throwing bombs at Henry Wade and his followers. If anything, he sympathizes with him.
“Prosecutors 20 years ago weren’t bad people,” he says. “I don’t think Henry Wade was a bad man.” The Innocence Project’s Moore looks fairly incredulous at that, but Watkins presses on. No, he says, Wade had good intentions; he just “got lost.” Watkins is afraid of believing his own hype because he believes that’s what happened to Wade. “You always have to check yourself.”
It’s a new side of Watkins, less rebellious. More evolved. Here is a man who has stopped struggling with himself, who has an answer to his own question, “Am I gonna stoop to that level or am I gonna stay aboveboard and do what’s necessary to make all this right?” The answer is clear in his statesman-like demeanor tonight, and in the glimpses I’ve seen on a more regular basis over these past few months. The answer was always there; it was just hidden. It’s not about his ego, or any personal slight, real or perceived. It’s not about Craig Watkins at all. It’s about James Waller’s face when he walked out of jail as a free man. “It looked like he was seeing light for the first time,” he says. Every sling and arrow is worth that.
Two weeks later, Watkins calls me out of the blue. He has something on his mind, and he wasn’t sure if I caught it from the audience at SMU.
“When we were first talking, I can remember back then, I was really venting,” he says. “I was venting. I look back on that now and I kind of question my mentality, because I was dealing with a lot of anger I think.”
He’ll deal with more as long as he stays in politics—especially as he enters the next phase of his political maturation, Royce West says, and learns “the legislative process, and to impact the laws that he is duty-bound to enforce.” It’s unavoidable. The difference is, now he welcomes it. Criticism, he finally sees, isn’t standing in the way of where he wants to go. No, it’s what is keeping him on his path. He doesn’t look forward to it, of course, but without that periodic reality check, there might be an upstart district attorney 30 years from now piling the ruins of a broken system at his feet. Wade could have used more critics.
Watkins welcomes the criticism because he never wants to forget who he is. He’s a black district attorney who, though he has faced long odds and is often underestimated, strives for a significant change in The Way Things Are Done. He is, according to the Dallas Morning News, the 2008 Texan of the Year, someone who “has elevated the debate about the quality of justice and has altered our view of the job that district attorneys everywhere should do.” But he’s also just a man—a guy from South Dallas with a wife, three kids, and a mortgage.
“We make mistakes,” he says. “We do things that are wrong. But I think if you’re doing it with a good heart and good intentions and you make a mistake, people are more willing to forgive you and keep you in office and do things for you, as opposed to when you try to cover it up and to hide it. To try to make you out to be this person that needs to be put on this pedestal and be better than God—I think that’s what we had in the past with politicians locally. Admit your mistakes. Admit the problems that you had. And go on, because everybody has them.”